To believers of the supernatural, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California is the remnant of an unfortunately haunted widow, while skeptics see the mansion as a monument to the power of inherited guilt. After consulting with a medium who foretold that the spirits killed by Winchester branded rifles would haunt her until her death, Sarah Winchester’s mansion became legendary for having been under construction every day of her life. The end result was a beautifully ornate mansion that once stood seven stories tall, and was filled with over a hundred and fifty rooms, stairwells and doors that lead to nowhere, and had the chaotic floor-plan of a labyrinth. Knowing this, when I heard there were plans to make a film about Sarah Winchester and her interactions with a psychiatrist, I was genuinely excited by the prospect of a horror film that blurred the line between a genuine haunting and tragic psychological turmoil.
How foolish of me to anticipate a horror film released in February.
To me, the Spierig brothers’ Winchester (2018) isn’t just another sub-par horror film, but a trial that makes my blood simmer in both disappointment and resentment. To take an excellent premise, interesting setting, and great actors, only to drag them through a clichéd film with a script that feels like a second draft at best is completely detestable. This movie should’ve fallen perfectly in line with a film like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), but instead feels like a blood relative to the dreadful Catherine Zita-Jones remake of The Haunting released in the 90s. Seeing as only five people would want to watch Winchester unless it received rave reviews anyways, I fully intend on spoiling this film in its near entirety in order to fully express my dissatisfaction with the Spierig brothers and the abomination they’ve brought onto theater screens.
This has been your official spoiler warning.
Winchester features psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) who has been hired by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to analyze the erratic behaviors of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) in a bid to take back the 50% stock of the company that she owns. However, upon his arrival at the Winchester mansion, bizarre occurrences shake Price’s skepticism as both he and Sarah Winchester come face to face with their haunted pasts. Whatever sliver of hope I held onto that Winchester would be a compelling, nuanced film were completely decimated in the first scene, where Sarah Winchester’s redheaded grand-nephew walks around the house, with his eyes turned into a pale grey glaze caused by a possession.
Despite this clear indication to the audience that the house is, in fact, haunted by otherworldly spirits, the film continues to act as if the audience is riding the fence between believing that Sarah Winchester is mentally ill or that the house is haunted. Additionally, Eric Price is introduced to us as a substance abuser, which I say without specificity only because I’m still not sure if he was taking drugs from a poison bottle or if he was getting high off of actual poison, the latter of which would make his character incredibly stupid. Regardless, it’s implied that what Price sees in his first few nights at the mansion is just a series of hallucinations thanks to his substance abuse, but again, our first scene of the film involves what is very obviously a case of possession! To try using hallucinations as a veil to cloak your phantoms is a waste of our time. Even when we’ve been exposed ad nauseam to what are clearly supernatural forces, it’s as if the Spierig brothers think that audiences will believe that people and objects being thrown around and pinned up against both walls and gravity isn’t empirical evidence of a supposedly haunted mansion being plagued by otherworldly entities.
Unfortunately, this movie is also infected with jump-scares on a level that I’ve only ever joked about. Almost everything in this film is deemed worthy of a loud jump-scare, from shadows, to doors, rogue roller-skates, people that enter the frame just a tad too fast, and even the cut that signals a scene transition. The minefield of jump-scares is the only thing that makes this film nearly impossible to sleep through. These jump-scares are not only obnoxious and distracting, but many are obviously telegraphed, which turns them into speed-bumps in the story. One sequence that comes to mind involves Price looking at his reflection in a desk mirror, with the camera focused on the mirror too much for it not to be used as a jump-scare device. Price then proceeds to turn the mirror to and fro about a half a dozen times, all to lead up to not one, but two awful, predictable, and clearly telegraphed jump-scares. Between the jump-scares and the music, the movie is too muddied up by obvious silences and their subsequent cacophonies to ever build up any tension for a genuine scare, but then again, I guess asking a modern horror film to bother trying to be legitimately scary seems like just a little too much these days.
This film seems too eager to suck the audience into its jump-scare bombardments, as the few scenes that would’ve been interesting feel like they’re cut short. Though Price is sent to the mansion to perform a psychological analysis on Sarah Winchester, we only see about two or three of these interactions between them throughout the movie, which is a genuine shame. Instead of building up any semblance of tension through these sessions, or through any of Price’s interviews with the other residents of the house, this movie thinks we’d rather see Price bumble around the house getting spooked by the totally freaky loud sounds. There are brief moments in these interactions that tell me this film might’ve been a great horror-drama had it been written by actual writers and not two shmucks who probably think tense build-up is for boring losers.
There are only two kinds of ghosts in this film: pale, grey-eyed ghosts, who are basically just people wearing contacts, and the totally spooky rotting zombie ghosts, with this latter category being solely occupied by none other than our main villain ghost. No, I’m not joking, there is a character in this film that can only be described to you as “the main villain ghost”. The mere inclusion of this character role in the story could’ve been laughable, had he been given ample screen time beyond the effortless jump-scares. Hell, I can’t even remember the main villain ghost’s name!
The fact that this film has an unironic final battle with the main villain ghost is truly the last nail in the coffin for me. Watching the main villain ghost make twenty Winchester rifles float in the air and point them at Eric Price and Sarah Winchester while Price tries to shoot the ghost with bullets was already embarrassingly dumb. Now add onto the fact that Price only manages to defeat the main villain ghost when he uses this refurbished bullet that almost killed him to shoot the spirit, and believe it or not, that actually kills the ghost. This climax is what made me feel like I was watching some juvenile live-action anime adaptation, and had the film not had about three minutes left in its run-time, I probably would’ve left the theater.
Though I’ve seen objectively worse movies in my time, Winchester is one of those rare films that make me obscenely angry at the wasted potential on full display. If you want an example of a clichéd bore, then look no further than this rancid, flaming litter box of a film. To see nuance and tension exchanged for effortless surprises falsely labeled as “scares” is utterly excruciating, and quite frankly, anything nice that can be said about Winchester can’t outweigh its terrible missteps. Please, don’t waste your time with this film.
George Ibarra is a Senior at Florida International University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a minor in Sociology, along with Certificates in Exile Studies and Film Studies.